Kobayashi Issa’s Mist: Haiku or Senryu?


Years ago (in fact the Internet tells me that it was on January 1st, 2002) I saw a TV special about Kobayashi Issa that starred the famous Japanese actor Tomoyuki Nishida playing the role of him. The show portrayed Issa as a young man in Edo who was writing senryu and I still remember how shocked my wife was at this, she just couldn’t believe that Issa had written something other than haiku and dissed senryu as being a very low brow thing. I have since asked a few other people about this and they have answered that he did write senryu, the latest being a guy I met not long ago at a coffee shop who was reading a magazine about Issa.

Because of this, whenever I run into a humorous haiku by Issa I start asking myself if this is a senryu or a haiku. I recently encountered this Issa haiku on Facebook, and I started wondering about it:

san mon ga kasumi minikeri toomegane

Three mon (old Japanese coin) /but /mist /see (in a past tense form with an exclamation). /telescope.

Translators in English always play up the humorous humanistic side of Issa’s poetic character so I went and saw how David Lanoue and Makota Ueda translated the haiku and how they read its meaning.

Lanoue gives this translation and comment:

for three pennies
nothing but mist…

Issa’s tone is wryly ironic. He (or someone) has paid three pennies (three mon) to peer through a telescope to see … only mist. On one level, he groans at the waste of money to have paid to see, magnified, nothing–the same nothing that the naked eye views for free. On another level– and there’s always another level in Issa’s best haiku– he smiles at human enterprise and its futility.

This how Makoto Ueda, in “Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa” (pg.16) saw it:

three pennies’ worth
of haze -that’s all I see
through this telescope

He paid three pennies to rent a telescope, but what he saw through it was nothing but mist.

Ueda mentioned that Issa wrote this haiku on “Yushima Hill, which overlooked the Ueno and Asakura districts of Edo”, and Lanoue mentioned this, so I was a little surprised when I opened the book of collected Issa haiku in Japanese that I have to find that this haiku had this “maegaki” (preface): “白日登湯台” (hakujitsu toutoudai) which translates as “Broad Daylight Elevated Yushima Deck”.

The one thing to understand about the Japanese language is that it is very situationally based, which is how they can get away without using pronouns, articles and plurals. You can get away with this in conversation because the speaker and the listener are sharing the same experience as they converse, but in literature the shared existence isn’t there anymore, so haiku will often have prefaces which set the situation so the reader is able to understand what subject is being written about.

Presented the situation that the language is being used in with this preface, it doesn’t take a a great leap to understand how you see mist with a telescope in broad daylight, apparently they were a thing that the Japanese were surprisingly bad at copying after they had started getting them from the west:

In the early 1700s, Japanese manufactured telescopes were becoming more common, and the general public would have seen only domestic models, but quality was inconsistent and imported telescopes were preferred, although Mitaku Yorai indicated that not all imports were so favored: ‘China has failed to supply any of outstanding quality’, continuing, ‘every now and again an inability to see much with a Japanese one is to be marked.’

Broad Daylight on Yushima Shrine’s Viewing Platform…….

Only three coins
but I did
see the
unseen mist!
The telescope.

Nowadays we see single comedians on the stage all the time and although we know that there were comedian duos or groups in the past we really don’t think of comedy in that term anymore. In Japan, however, a single comedian is the exception and duos or groups are the norm. The groups perform skits and the duos banter and joke, and a lot of the style of comedy is based on Manzai where one of the pair plays the straight man and the other plays a stupid character that misunderstands the situation which in turn gets intensified when he misinterprets everything that the straight man says to explain it to him. Abbott and Costello’s famous “Whose On First” routine is a great example of this.

The laughter in the above haiku/senryu all rides on knowing that Issa is playing the stupid character. He’s payed a very small amount of money, saw the mist and now thinks this is a great telescope because he saw something that he couldn’t see with his naked eye and is telling everyone about this, blissfully unaware that the poor quality of the lens is what made the mist.


Issa started studying haikai at the age of 26 and he was 28 when he wrote the above, which puts him in the time frame that the drama I watched a long time ago had him in, as a young man in Edo and writing senryu. The easiest way to judge the difference between a haiku and a senryu is to look at the authorial intent of the writing, if the verse is written for the sole purpose of making the reader laugh, then it is a senryu. Given the preface here, there isn’t much of an argument against that Issa is doing anything here but going for a laugh.

Leaving this broad definition aside, there are also formal considerations to the difference between a haiku and a senryu. Haiku by definition must contain both a seasonal word (kigo) and a cutting word (kireji) while senryu doesn’t have to include either. The way Issa uses “mist” here really isn’t in a seasonal way but the verb ending of “keri” is a cutting word.

Another difference between the two is the type of language they use, haiku uses a literary style while senryu uses colloquial every day language. By using “keri” Issa is using language that is never spoken and only used in literature while the way he uses “ga” as a conjunction rather than a subject marker is a an every day speech pattern.

Because of the use of a literary style, haiku rings with the reverberations of language like all poetry does, while the language of senryu is straight forward with no poetic frills. The use of both “keri” and “ga” are a commingling of the two genres.

So, is this a haiku or senryu? I’m not sure, but since the main purpose for the writing of it is to get a laugh and no more, I will give it the label of being a senryu. But, perhaps this quote from this website sums it up the best:


(Although I did intend to write a haiku, I have had other people say to me “oh, that’s a pretty good senryu.”)


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